Why slam poetry is so promising — and poisonous

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As with any art form that attains the limelight, slam poets in India might want to guard against abusing the pulpit’s gravitas with mediocre, bombastic content.

“Shouldn’t poetry, whether it be written or performed, be judged by how one manages to remember the words crashing against the mind and casting indelible impressions?”

Back in the beginning of 2017 when I was still an over-excited college freshman just out of my first semester, I was hit in the face with a ticket to a close-knit group of rich, liberal and somewhat snooty people called the Slam Poetry Circuit of Delhi. My introduction to these cognoscenti who bonded over wine and judged poetry came in the form of New Friend (who was bisexual, and smoked inside our campus, and was fat, and absolutely unapologetic about it), who took me on a freewheeling ride into these alternative universes existing within a problematic Delhi.

This was my place, I decided. This is where I get to not shave my legs and be okay with it, and exclaim loudly about my periods to no condescension, and mingle with people far better than me in writing and performing poetry and thus learn from them. And in all of this, New Friend was here to stay with me and tell me all sorts of things she had done while I could sit drinking iced tea, my eyeballs ready to drop out.

 

 

So things were okay, I was an average writer but learnt to improvise, write better and practise my craft. Then life — actual adult life at that — started happening. So, I couldn’t perform too frequently — and even my writing sucked at that point. I decided to take a window seat and watch all the lives and happenings of Hashtag Slam Poetry Circuit of Delhi, follow the popular writers, then the good writers too, and then the indie musicians and the poets who wrote and smoked with equal intensity.

The problem is that these spaces — not just in Delhi, but all across India — are actually havens of great talent, activism and an accepting, liberal environment, but in the rush to acquire validation from newspapers and Facebook, mediocre content is being propped up and given a big stage to expand. Mediocrity only spawns more mediocrity.

All (okay, whatever, ninety percent) these slam poets you read about in newspapers — if you take a fine-tooth comb to their work and analyse it and compare it with the very best of literature, you’ll realise it’s empty. There really is no substance in whatever these people are trying to tell you on stage, all these Instagram socialites and actors and #writers #poets who find slam poetry to be the easiest way to clinch social stardom these days.

 

 

Poem about periods? Of course it is going to get a million YouTube views. Toxic, male bashing poem (I’m female by the way) that says all men rape and men are trash spread across the universe and our body parts are only “to be sucked”? Check check check, that lands you a deal with a Bollywood superstar (read guy on the lookout for the next publicity gimmick) and tons of performances across the nation and oh yeah, the opportunity of being the flagbearers of Indian “feminism” and “poetry”.

The best writers and performers I know are mostly unknown to the public eye or foreigners. Shouldn’t poetry, whether it be written or performed, be judged by how one manages to remember the words crashing against the mind and casting indelible impressions? Or is the rhyme scheme and relevance to Periods and Depression and Internet Feminism and — oh, oh — Consent spelled As C-O-N-S-E-N-T (Thanks for giving a dictionary lesson in the middle of a poem, I really needed that) more relevant? Why are such serious topics being picked up and performed like nothing, their very essence crushed as if under an elephant’s foot just to garner more likes and shares? And most importantly — why do people feel the need to take other people’s voices and call it their own (case in point: a man who recited a poem about marital rape from a woman’s perspective) and become self-anointed “poetry activists”?

 

There is another, more heartbreaking side-effect of this misplaced fame and glory — the really good ones, the ones who create for the sake of creating, are shutting shop and abandoning their pursuits altogether. Why? Because while mediocrity, “easily understandable” and fungible stuff, is given ample opportunities to boom and shoot up, good content languishes in anonymity, barely thirty likes per painting or ten likes per laudable New Yorker-style essay.

Slam poetry has a lot of potential to become a hotbed of activism and change, and here we are giving a free platform to people who don’t deserve to be called writers in the first place, people who are an insult to the sanctity of literature, philosophy, poetry and social justice. I wonder if the story of the rise of these “poets” matches that of a certain IIT-IIM superstar writer, but who am I to comment on the kind of people we put on pedestals and worship?

(The views expressed by the author of this piece are just that — the author’s views.)

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